« A Handful of Fulci | Main | Coffee Break »

November 09, 2007

Faith + Film Blog-a-thon: What's Love Got to do with It?

what's love got to do with it.jpg

Brian Gibson - 1993
Touchstone Region 1 DVD

More meditations on Film + Faith are to be found at Strange Culture.

As a Buddhist for over thirty years, I have as a matter of course been interested in how Buddhism has been portrayed in film. As the practicioner of a particular kind of Buddhism esstablished by Nichiren Daishonin, I have had to consider some films that have attempted to convey this form of Buddhism on film. There have been a few Japanese films that have made Nichiren and Nichiren's Buddhism the central subject. Brian Gibson's film is not about Buddhism per se as much it is about Tina Turner's life before and after Buddhism, yet Gibson has made a more serious attempt at seeking a way to visually convey Buddhism in a way that even the Japanese films do not.

Putting this essay in some context, let me first explain that all references to Buddhism will be specifically to Nichiren's Buddhism. For those unfamiliar, this is the one where people chant, "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo". This practice was established by a 13th Century Japanese priest who held that the true essence of Buddhism was to be found in the Lotus Sutra, and that the essence of the Lotus Sutra was to be found in the title. The words translate somewhat roughly to, "I devote myself to the mystic law of simultaneous cause and effect through sound". Mystic in this case means beyond normal human understanding. Unlike other forms of Buddhism which involve prayer towards statues of Buddha, the object of worship is a scroll with "Nam-Myhoho-Renge-Kyo" written with other calligraphy denoting states of existence. As the scroll is not to be reproduced, except my Buddhist priests, photography of the scroll, known as the Gohonzon, is prohibited. It is for this reason that films about this particular form of Buddhism show that practitioners chanting towards an alter, but the contents of the alter are never seen.

In his book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader discusses how many narrative films used what he terms "overabundant means" in conveying enlightenment or a dramatic form of religious experience. While in no way unique to him, the template of overabundant means is mostly associated with Cecil B. De Mille and The Ten Commandments. The religious experience is given its filmic equivalent with the swelling chorus on the soundtrack, and the main character dramatically lit, basking in white or yellow light. Curiously, as if to indicate that overabundant means is suitable for all religious experiences, a similar tact has been used by the Japanese filmmakers of those films I have seen either about Nichiren or in the story of the lay orgination, Soka Gakkai. Kunio Watanabe's Nichiren to moko daishurai, made in 1958, is especially under the influence of De Mille. Noboru Nakamura's Nichiren, from 1979, is more restrained, but still overly reliant on special effects. Toshio Masuda's two films based on the novelized autobiography of Buddhist lay leader Daisaku Ikeda, The Human Revolution, filmed in 1973 and 1974 are no different. Imprisoned by the military government during World War II, Soka Gakkai leader Josei Toda experiences his enlightment filmed in a way that would be no different than that had it been De Mille or Wyler filming Charlton Heston. To the best of my knowledge, none of the Japanese filmmakers cited practiced this form of Buddhism. It should also be noted that in keeping with a form of Buddhism that is more engaged with present day realities, Soka Gakkei leader Daisaku Ikeda has written essays on two favorite films, Ikiru and High and Low. As is the case with Akira Kurosawa's contemporary films, these are works reflecting social consciousness. In one of his other writings during the making of The Human Revolution films, Ikeda wrote about the films' screenwriter, Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto.

Of the four narrative filmmakers I know to be Buddhist, Peter Werner and Linda Thornburg have not made any films that directly discuss Buddhism in any way. Alan Mak uses a more generic reference to Buddhism, especially the Buddhist concept of Hell, in setting up Infernal Affairs. while the Buddhist practice of the gang leader portrayed by Eric Tsang does not appear to be that of a specific sect. That a Buddhist film director made a film about one of America's most famous Buddhists almost did not happen.

According to an essay by Gibson published in the American Buddhist newspaper, "World Tribune", Gibson was set to direct another music based film in 1992. There seems to be some kind of comic irony that Gibson traded The Thing called Love with Sandra Bullock for What's Love Got to do with It? and the former Anna Mae Bullock.

What's Love . . . announces that the film is about faith from the beginning. Titles on the screen read, "The lotus is a flower that grows in the mud. The thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus blooms. This thought is expressed in the Buddhist chant: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo." During the opening, chanting is heard on the soundtrack, with the camera tilting down from the sky to a church. The chanting fades out to be replaced by the sound of a chorus practicing the spiritual, "This Little Light of Mine". The elementary school aged Anna Mae Bullock is heard conspicuously over the others in the chorus. This opening simultaneously introduces the character of the future Tina Turner, primarily known for her singing talent, and letting the audience know that as much as the film is biographical, it is also about one person's experience with faith.

what's love got to do with it 1.jpg

what's love got to do with it 2.jpg

What needs to be noted about What's Love . . is the use of mirrors as a visual motif at each point in the evolution of Tina Turner. The first such seen is when Ike convinces Tina to spend the night in the guest bedroom. Tina's sleep is interupted by Ike's first wife, Lorraine, who first threatens Tina with a gun before shooting herself. The scene works as a forecast of parts of Tina's future with Ike. The second mirror scene takes place when Ike and Tina Turner have become a nationally popular recording act, with Tina more confident in speaking for herself. Following that scene is one of Ike beating Tina. The third mirror scene is when Phil Spector appears, wanting to record Tina as a solo act. In looking in the mirror, Tina sees a possible future without Ike. A fourth mirror image is of Tina looking at herself following what would be the last of Ike's beatings. The final mirror image is of Ike in Tina's dressing room prior to one of Tina's showcase performances as a solo act, confident in the face of Ike's threats with a gun.

what's love got to do with it 3.jpg

what's love got to do with it 5.jpg

The use of mirrors is put in context during the scene when Tina is introduced to Buddhism by her friend, Jackie, a fictionalized composite created for the film. Jackie likens Buddhism to a mirror that allows one to see one's self. The concept of the practice of Buddhism as a mirror is used frequently in the writings of Nichiren Daishonin. This concept is further extended in contemporary writings on Buddhism such as the book, The Buddha in Your Mirror.

what;s love got to do with it 6.jpg

What is interesting about What's Love . . . is that the visual motif of the mirror gave Gibson a way of relaying an idea about religious experience in a form that is integrated within the narrative. This is neither the over-abundant means of the traditional religious film from the De Mille template, nor is this the stylized vision of faith employed by the filmmakers cited by Schrader - Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer. At least in this one film was a visual metaphor used in such a way that most people would not be aware of just how much What's Love Got to do with It? was as much about Buddhism as it was about the life of Tina Turner.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 9, 2007 02:44 AM


this was a wonderful article..i've seen this movie numerous times and never would have developed these kinds of insight on my own...i wish i could have this kind of insightful analysis for all the movies i've seen,thanks dh

Posted by: dh at April 6, 2008 01:21 PM